Downtown Voices

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June 11, 2002 // UPDATED 1:24 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Dave Van Hattum
Dave Van Hattum

Density, not congestion, is the the key to Downtown vigor

Michael Krause's recent column, \"Is increasing highway congestion good for Downtown?\" (May 27-June 2), got it backwards. It\'s not that highway congestion is good for Downtown, but rather that more Downtown residents are good for traffic congestion.

Certainly a little bit of congestion is a good thing, as it reflects a vibrant economy. However, the economic vitality of Downtown, like any urban employment site, is highly affected by accessibility (i.e. the ability to get to job sites, services, etc). Downtown is a desirable employment site partly because employers are in close proximity to other employers with whom they do business, but also because employers have an unparalleled ability to attract skilled workers from all parts of the metropolitan region.

Density, not highway congestion, is good for Downtown. The density of employment Downtown makes vastly superior transit options financially feasible. As Mr. Krause mentions, this includes the regional bus system that 40 percent of Downtown commuters choose, the increased opportunity for carpooling that 15 percent of Downtown commuters choose, and bicycling and walking options that 4 percent of Downtown commuters choose.

As many observers have noted, Minneapolis doesn\'t compete with St. Paul or the suburbs so much as the Twin Cities metropolitan region competes with Atlanta, Denver or Amsterdam. And managing congestion successfully is an important component of regional economic competitiveness. Clearly, it is a promising development that the Downtown residential population is growing as people choose to spend more on housing and less on transportation.

But let\'s not forget that Minneapolis has a thriving, mixed-use, nearly round-the-clock Downtown precisely because of the concentration of employees. Downtown will have a projected 20,000 additional workers by 2010. This influx of workers, however, is unlikely if traffic gridlock stymies Downtown access.

Mr. Krause is right -- \"building our way out of congestion\" is too expensive. If Downtown is to continue to grow, we must get even better at moving more people per vehicle and per road lane. That means continuing and expanding investment in light rail, commuter rail, carpool lanes and ramp bypasses, bus lanes, parking discounts for carpools and vanpools and bicycle infrastructure.

Also, other complementary congestion-management strategies need greater attention. For example, employers can pass on bus-pass savings of over 50 percent to employees, through a combination of regional incentives and state and federal tax benefits. Employers can also help form employee carpools, and can eliminate archaic and inequitable benefits that exclusively reward (with free or subsidized parking) those employees who drive alone to work.

Just as work and home provide a balance for individuals, the same is true of great cities. The synergistic dense jobs-and-housing balance makes possible highly cost-effective transportation choices for Downtown residents, and for Downtown workers. In addition to celebrating more people living and working Downtown, it is critical that we recognize that Downtown and regional economic vitality are highly affected by congestion management strategies that maximize people movement, as opposed to vehicle movement, into and out of Downtown.

Dave Van Hattum is assistant director of the Downtown Minneapolis TMO/Commuter Connection. To learn more about employer and employee commuter programs please contact him at 370-3987, or stop in at the Commuter Connection located in the Pillsbury Center skyway, 2nd Avenue South and 6th Street.